You wouldn’t think people actually lived on this street. It’s one of the main thoroughfares, an artery of urban bustle, crowds spilling over the pavements day and night, drinking in the pubs and cafes, streaming in or out of the concert venue, staring in the windows of the chi-chi boutiques, taking selfies outside the old theatre, or crowding round the buskers who work the passing trade on the pedestrian cut-throughs. The street heads up at a shallow incline, diverging endlessly left and right, then gradually thins, and quietens, until it runs out of energy at the top, where a main road cuts across it at right angles, running from the station to the sea. Here the shops are more down-at-heel. There’s a second hand camera shop, an antique clothes shop, a tailoring and alteration shop, a shop for rent, all of them weathered and worn, their wooden facades peeling. The person who did the display in the window of the antique clothes shop – how long ago? – has opted for a nightmarishly whimsical look: a stuffed fox head tied into a hacking jacket; some tackle lying around, a few vacant toys, as if they’d given up trying and taken to lure customers in with appalled terror instead. I wonder if there’s anyone in the shop at all. Maybe they’re just behind the netting, holding their breath, staring at me as I cup my hand on the glass to see better.
Mr Lake lives in the flat above the tailoring shop next door. There’s a young woman sitting in the shop window, dreamily needling some trousers draped on her lap. She pauses with the needle in mid-air as I fetch the key from the keysafe and turn to open the side door. I smile and nod but she doesn’t acknowledge me; in fact, I don’t even see her lower the needle as I push the side door open.
The hallway is dark and cramped, the only light coming from a yellowing square of glass at the far end, and a single, winking point of red from the console of the electric scooter on charge. I can’t see a switch for any hall light, and there’s no room for me to put my bag down and find my torch, so instead I wait a minute until my eyes have adjusted, then slowly creep forwards past the scooter and piles of junk, onto the sagging carpet of the stairs, and head up
‘Hello? Mr Lake? It’s Jim – from the hospital.’
There’s a TV playing in one of the rooms overhead, a rowdy studio debate, raucous shouting and applause – which somehow makes the place feel quieter.
A toilet with no door on the first little landing, a twist to the left, a galley kitchen on the right with a glimpse of stacked plates and bulging plastic bags, and then up onto the top landing, where a heavy curtain has been nailed across a doorway.
I hook the curtain aside.
Mr Lake is sitting on a high-backed chair, surrounded by boxes and cabinets, piles of old Picture Post and Hobbycraft magazines, crates of clocks and teasmades and novelty telephones. It’s difficult enough for me to find a way through all the mess, so I can’t imagine how Mr Lake manages it. But then, no doubt, he’s used to it all and it fits him pretty well, like a hermit crab making its shell from a tin can or a discarded doll’s head.
I’m here to dress a wound on his leg. It’s not easy, setting up a sterile field, though. I have to move a few things.
‘Temporarily!’ I tell him. ‘If I’d had a pound for every time I’d said temporarily….’
‘You’d have five pounds fifty!’ he says.
We chat whilst I set up. He tells me about his life. How he used to be an engineer.
‘I was always good with my hands,’ he says. ‘Taking things apart, putting them back together, that kind of thing.’
‘That’s a great skill to have.’
‘It kept me fed and watered.’
I glove up.
‘Any family in the area…?’ I ask as I lean in to remove the old dressing. The smell is gacky – the cloyingly sweet smell of decay.
‘No. No family,’ he says, watching me drop the filthy dressing into the waste bag. ‘I was married for a while. But she left. Ran off with the best man. And one day he dropped dead at work. So she killed herself.’
‘Oh – I’m sorry,’ I say, changing my gloves. ‘That’s terrible.’
‘Ah. Well,’ he says. ‘She was always a bit up and down.’
When I’ve finished the dressing and I’m ready to go, I notice some framed pictures on the wall behind the TV.
‘Is that you?’ I say, pointing at the picture of a smiling young man in a smart suit and waistcoat, holding a scowling baby up to the camera.
‘No! That’s my mother!’ he says.
‘Your mother? What? This one?’
‘Where are my glasses…?’ says Mr Lake. He grumbles and fumbles around his chair, the glasses magically appear in his hand, he hooks them over his ears, then screws up his face and leans forward.
‘Oh. Yes. You’re right. That’s me,’ he says.
‘Who’s the baby?’
‘That one? No idea.’
Amongst all the other portraits is one of a young woman in a floppy white hat and wide-collared raincoat. It’s a posed, three-quarter shot, the woman staring sleepily off to the right, her eyes heavy, her mouth slightly open. The odd thing is, she has her right hand raised in mid-air, palm down, off to the side at shoulder height, as if she’s pushing through invisible undergrowth, or maybe working a marionette whose strings she’d dropped but didn’t think anyone would notice.
‘That’s her,’ says Mr Lake. ‘That’s my wife. She made that coat. The day I took the photo we’d gone out for something to eat. We were sitting in the cafe, and the owner of a fancy boutique came over, and he said Where did you get that coat? And she said I made it. So he said Why don’t you come and work for me! We need people like you.’
‘And did she?’
‘No,’ says Mr Lake. ‘She didn’t.’